Specific Sensory Details

I don’t think I’ve ever taught a writing class without invoking that phrase.  How can an author whisk a reader into another time or place, without bringing the action to a clattering halt with a data dump of description?  Invoke the senses.  Sifting a few fresh details into a  scene can instantly bring it to life in a reader’s imagination.

I was reminded of that when Scott and I visited Old World Wisconsin’s Christmas program last Sunday.  It was a great day weather-wise.  The Crossroads Village, Yankee Sanford Farm, and Finnish Ketola Farm looked charming with a dusting snow.

Some of the moments that are still most vivid, however, involved senses other than sight.  At St. Peter’s Church, we were treated to the sound of period music played on a 19th-century pump organ….

Bea Jacobson at the pump organ, St. Peter's Church.

and a cornet.

Ed Pierce, playing an 1855 cornet, St. Peter's Church.

Anne Danko, preparing a holiday meal in the Sisel kitchen.

At the home of Bohemian immigrants, we were greeted with the sharp tangy scent of cooking cabbage.

“Something stinks!” a small boy said, as he stepped inside.

“Ooh, that’s good eating,” an elderly man countered.

Whatever the reaction, the smell triggered quick reactions.   Other food was being prepared as well, but the most pungent prompted the most comments.

The Finnish sauna smelled of smoke when we arrived, since a fire had been built among the sauna stones earlier that afternoon.

While we were inside the small structure, imagining the immigrants who once used the sauna in Wisconsin’s deep-snow northwoods, the interpreter poured water on the stones.

The sudden burst of steam could be heard, seen, and felt! That's Karl Kaphengst, tending the firepit.

We heard the hiss of cold water on hot stone.  We felt the dry air turn moist against our skin, as steam displaced the smoke.  We tried sitting on higher and lower benches, experimenting with the different temperatures.

I often suggest that beginning writers train themselves to collect sensory details by keeping a writing journal.  Every evening, write a brief description of something seen, heard, tasted, touched, and smelled.  It’s a fun thing for diarists or journalists to do, also.

Even after fifteen books, I often find that in rough drafts I’ve relied too heavily on visual description, and have neglected other senses.  Visits to sites like Old World Wisconsin help remind me how to build upon that foundation.

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One Response to “Specific Sensory Details”

  1. Tweets that mention Specific Sensory Details « Sites and Stories Blog -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Cindy Ausman, Lisa McGovern. Lisa McGovern said: Wow! Lovely description of some "sensory details" to be found this weekend at Spirit of Christmas Past/Old World WI http://tiny.cc/GnOEl […]

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